They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Service vocation…

Service vocation

By Edgardo Civallero

The work of librarians (as memory managers, as literacy agents, as cultural promoters or as curators of intangible heritage...) is a service: an activity destined to the satisfaction of a population's needs. The need to obtain information or education. The need to get some amusement. The need to satisfy curiosity, to banish boredom, to bury sadness or loneliness. Needs which could be expressed... or which may remain hidden, waiting for the careful work of an information professional.

Library services are social services: an activity carried out by the society for the society, managing a social good: our culture. Yes, a social good, which shouldn't be a commercial good, as far as culture is the heritage of the entire humankind. An intangible, community heritage...

Of course, we know these ideas. We have read them in a good number of textbooks and journals. We have learnt them in LIS classes. We have heard them in conferences and lectures. But we are still very far from completely understanding them. We are not conscious of the importance of the concept "service"... or maybe we have not accepted that, in fact, our work is a service. And we can find quite a number of good examples which could illustrate these points.

We still can find, in our libraries, the famous bookshelves-keepers, those colleagues who, like Cerberus, fill their time keeping the books ordered, clean... and untouched. They forgot that the reason of the existence of these books are the very hands that will disorder them, the fingers that will turn and crush their pages, and the eyes that will look at them curiously.

We still can find, in our libraries, the bureaucratic librarians, lovers of "procedures" and "official channels", discouragers of reading and culture, barriers between the books and the readers, and responsible for all the unlucky stereotypes that characterize our profession.

We still can find, in our libraries, the techno-compu-digital librarians, those persons who believe that computers are all the future people needs, forgetting that one half of the world's population will never touch a keyboard... and forgetting the importance of the human contact, of the conversation with the users, of the need to listen the readers' words for improving the services.

Maybe we don't find these characters so often... or maybe we should look into a mirror to find them. Maybe I have exaggerated a bit in the description... but as an ancient Galician proverb says, "even if I don't believe in this, it does exist!"

There are other colleagues who still have not discovered the goblins who live among the shelves, or the whispers and tears of the damaged books, or the spirits of the characters of the novels, looking at us curiously when we are alone in the library. But that is not condemnable: the magic of libraries is just revealed to a few ones, those who have fell in love with the ink and the paper since they are children.

All those colleagues who haven't understood the need of giving a service to our readers (something very close to giving the whole life) are becoming real barriers between the documents and the users. And I seriously doubt that they find any pleasure in what they do, anyways.

And all those who think in users like "clients" are losing an important part of the meaning of the term "service". The culture must be given and spread, not sold. Because it is a good that belongs to all of us. It is our task to make it reach every corner of the world. This should be our goal.

Those who undertake our work without a true service vocation will never know the daily miracle of the contact with readers. And they will never find the real sense of a millennial profession, born to serve, born to be bearer of knowledge.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A question of names...

A question of names

By Edgardo Civallero

It is not the first time –and probably it will be not the last one– that I ponder the close relation between our form of understanding reality and the words we use for representing or expressing it. I refer specifically to the terms used in thesauri and classification systems, controlled languages intended to codify our universe through a limited set of selected words.

During the last weeks, I have been collaborating with the Universal Decimal Classification Revision Advisory Committee in the elaboration of a classification scheme of the South American aboriginal languages (and peoples). These languages and societies have been neglected and formerly little represented in the tables of UDC (and others, like DDC or LCC). The codes I'm designing will be included (if approved by the Committee) in Auxiliary Tables 1f.

For me, this task became a double challenge. On one hand, I had to do some research in areas of my own profession with which I had no previous contact (e.g. construction of thesauri, documental languages, etc.) and in fields of other sciences (anthropology, ethnology, linguistics...) with which I had little contact through my studies in History. On the other hand, I had to take decisions about the reality I was trying to represent, and about the terms I wanted to employ.

Maybe you, who read these lines, will think that writing down a classification scheme including these languages is a simple matter. Maybe. However, since my first contact with this task, I discovered that nobody knows for certain which indigenous languages are still spoken, who use them, where they are, how many speakers are there... Nobody even knows if these languages are still spoken... Nobody knows how are they exactly, how are their inter-relations, if they have their own writing systems or not...

These points show by themselves a wide social and historical problem, which maybe do not affect us as librarians in a direct way, but that should affect us as human beings. For such languages (and their speakers, and the cultures they represent and codify) are a part of our heritage, of our cultural diversity, and of our global identity.

But let's forget this initial problem. My "crisis" started when, after sketching grosso modo the classification tree of native languages, I tried to fill the blanks with names. I will put an example of my work, so you will be able to understand my confusion...

The Ava people inhabit the eastern region of Salta province (Salta is placed in northwestern Argentina, bordering Bolivia), in a broad phyto-geographical region known as Chaco. The local, Spanish-speaking people call them "chaguancos" (a word which has become a synonym of "brute" in all the area) or "tembeta" (for the war ornament of the same name that Ava men used, in the past, piercing their lower lip). History books, however, perpetuate another name: "chiriguanos", the Spanish version of the Quechua word "chiriwano", scornful denomination that Ava received during the 14th century from their Inka neighbors (and enemies), and which could be translated literally as "frozen shit". They call themselves Ava ("human being(s)") and they call their language (an Andean-influenced variant of Guarani) Ava ñe'e ("the language of the human being(s)"). Their Chané neighbors, formerly their slaves, call them "chaya" (shortened form of the Guarani words che yara, "My Lord"). New history books, attempting to avoid the secular use of these pejorative terms, and respecting local identities, call them Ava-Guarani, setting a distinction with other Guarani-speaking peoples who also inhabit Argentina, like Mbyá people, who live in Misiones province, in northeastern Argentina.

Are you already lost? If you are not, we can add to this list the names that Ava receive from their neighbors: the western Qolla, the eastern Wichi, the northeastern Chorote and Chulupi (all of them also indigenous peoples). We also could include the terms that Spaniards conquerors (XVI-XVII centuries) and Argentinean / foreigners historians and anthropologists created for denominating the different Ava subgroups. And finally, we should not forget all the graphic variations of the previous words, like "chillihuano", "chiriwanu" or "abá".

Choosing –from this wide spectrum of words– a proper name which could accurately represent this people and their language in an international classification is not a simple task. It is not a question of elimination of old sources, neighbors-given names, or graphic variants. In the example shown above, the term Ava (the name that people give to themselves) is not known beyond the indigenous and indigenist circles. On the other hand, the name "chiriguano", the best known and the most reflected in history and anthropology books, is openly pejorative, and it is refused by the Ava themselves. The language they speak is known everywhere as Guarani, but this is not the denomination used by them to name it. It should also be considered that there are not normalized or official forms (neither in Spanish nor in English) for denominating these peoples or these languages: sometimes one is used, sometimes the other, depending on the occasion.

Which reality I must reflect? The same problem is found, repeated, in each one of the Argentinean and South American indigenous groups. It is not a simple question of words: some of these names reflect a long history of oblivion, scorn, aggression... By naming a thing or a person, we are setting a personal position in relation to what we name. Thus, we must become conscious of the value of the words we employ; we must think about their meaning, and we should be careful when using names of persons and societies...

Here I am, wondering if I should use "toba" ("big forehead") or Qom ("people"), or if I should use "tehuelche" ("unsociable people") or Aonik'enk ("people"). And I smile when I remember that, in Russian, "German" is "niemets" ("dumb"). Definitively, it seems an international problem about which nobody has thought too much. A problem that, after centuries of continuous and unconscious use, has disappeared of our minds as such. But is has not disappeared of "their" minds, of the mind of "the Others", who are just asking for a little bit of respect.

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights of Barcelona (1996) points out the necessity of calling the languages according to the names the speakers give to them. A little of ethics pushes me to avoid the pejorative terms. But the question, my big question, is if a thesaurus or a classification system built with "clean" (but sometimes unknown) terms would be useful for the final users.

Maybe it is just a question of checking out, for once, if the union of respect and usefulness is possible. Or if, once again, positive values fall under the pressure of suitability.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

To read or to eat? Is that the question?

To read or to eat? Is that the question?

By Edgardo Civallero

It happened in 2003 in Salavina, a little village lost in the middle of the dry forests which border the Dulce River, in southeastern Santiago del Estero (an Argentinean province). I was there presenting an advance of my work with aboriginal libraries, in the Annual Congress of Quechua Language and Culture (Quechua is the old language of Incas, and Salavina is placed inside the region where the only Argentinean dialect of Quechua is still lively spoken). During my speech, someone among the audience raised the hand and, in a quite high voice, told me that my work was really nice, but that "poor Indians didn't need books, but food and that sort of things..."

After some hours and despite the "consolation" of several colleagues –who supported my ideas and my work with warm and very logical speeches– I was still stuck. Had I been so blind? Had my work been so useless, so utopian, so ridiculous, so stupid?

The question on discussion goes as follows: is reading a useful tool for the development of communities and peoples, or maybe it is just a luxury which could be relegated to a last place when compared with more urgent needs?

I built the answer (the one that I was not able to deliver back in Salavina) after a good number of months working within the harsh reality of rural, indigenous and disadvantaged urban communities.

The priority, urgent, physical necessities of an individual or a society can be satisfied through humanitarian aid... if a more convenient way is not previously found. Many hands would give this help willingly: NGOs, religious groups, (some) governments... The problem, as an old peasant of northern Cordoba (the Argentinean province where I live) funnily told to me, is that "shoes and peas tin cans do not breed". Indeed, once the tin can is empty and the shoes are worn out, people go back to the departure situation of crisis, waiting again for the aid resources. This chain of events usually leads to unfortunate and dangerous relationships: all kind of manipulations, and even social, political, and religious control. Several examples in Argentina and other South American countries clearly demonstrate this point.

The primary needs of disadvantaged communities (food, house, health) must be covered in a balanced way, but this must necessarily be complemented with education and information (and these services could be implemented by means of a public library). Education allows the construction of roads to the future, the recovery of lost identities and dreams, the knowledge of rights and duties, the finding of solutions to problems, and the understanding of the power of the own hands and the own work. It allows avoiding today's fall to be repeated tomorrow. It allows building hopes and projects, and breaking chains of humiliating dependence. It allows giving the fish to the hungry people today, while teaching them to catch tomorrow's fish. It allows learning how to breed cattle, to manage seeds and plants, to take profit of natural and human resources, to create work and an infinite spectrum of other possibilities.

So, I believe that there is no such a disjunctive between books and food. We do not have to leave aside the important matters because of the urgent things. We must keep in mind both of them, giving a just treatment to each one. Reading and writing skills –and the roads they open– are essential acquisitions for every human society. Without them, personal and social development is neglected, and even stopped.

But it seems that, as usual, the future and its chances are horizons that can be seen just by a few visionary minds. The rest –including a good number of librarians, and authorities, and governments, and powers, and...– remain solving immediate problems. They cannot see that, by doing this, they are closing lots of doors leading to a future growth.

And sometimes, as I have stated before, this kind of help ends in domination and harmful relationships. Just ask to the indigenous communities in northeastern Argentina: they are paying with their votes the water they drink, and with their prayers and their faith the books their read. American and German evangelist books...